Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Lean and Mean

Modern business runs totally on the "lean and mean" model, JIT manufacturing as an example. This reduces inventories and maximizes profits -- a good thing. But, when it comes to infrastructrure, it may not be the right thing to do. The power outage in the north-east is a good example. The system is running right at capacity, no redundancy, a couple of stations go down and the whole thing dominoes. Following which, gas prices go up 20%, because a half dozen refineries in the blacked-out areas missed a day of production. The wild fluctuation we see in gas prices says the same thing to me, too lean and mean -- no resiliency against minor perturbations.

Vernor Vinge wrote two great sci-fi novels recently, "A Fire on the Deep" and "A Deepness in the Sky". I preferred the second one. One compelling idea he presented was that advanced planetary civilizations never make it more than around 10,000 years. They reach a point of precarious complexity such that a single event causes all the systems to come crashing down, with an ensuing mass die-off. When you see the brittleness of the majority of the computing systems that increasingly run our world, it definitely makes you think.

So, what to do? Certainly government regulation of infrastructure systems is one way to go, but government systems are surely about as far opposite of "lean and mean" as you can go. ("Fat and dumb" maybe?). Maybe a more Darwinian approach would be to slap massive fines (prefiled class action suits) on infrastructure companies in the event of outages or major or persistent SLA violations.

Monday, August 18, 2003

More Random Foo

Interesting article in this months Scientific American on the cerebellum. Its surface area is just over that of one of the cerebral hemispheres. The cerebrum has 10^11 neurons (interesting large number coincidence, also the number of stars in a large spiral galaxy like ours and the number of galaxies in the universe), each with an average of 10,000 (10^4) connections to axions. So, that makes 10^15 total synapses in the brain. Say you can model synapse state in 10 bytes, that gives 10^16 bytes for the neural state of the brain at any instant. That is, what, 10,000 terabytes? Pretty serious storage for a snapshot.

Anyway, returning to the cerebellum, the main point was that it seems to play a role in integrating sensory input as well as in balance and motor skills ("riding a bike"). What I thought was interesting, a lot of the cells in the cerebellum (they had a name) have 100,000 or more axion connections. So, a basically different wiring model. Made me think, this was "brain v1.0", and the cerebrum is "brain v2.0". Also interesting, you can lose your cerebellum and still mostly function, except for balance problems. Seems like that would have been a way to switch models, to have two brains and gradually switch from the older to the newer. Then, find something minor to do with the old model -- like when you take your former main server and make at Linux based DNS server or some such thing.

Returning to wailing on indigenous peoples (prior post), it's like, yes, let's preserve this stuff, but don't make people live by it. We don't need "museum Fremen". We don't need "4:00, must be time for the rain dance." Dancing is always good for the "soul", but as technology, it doesn't work.

So, I'm like 75% German (the largest U.S. ethnic group). So, should I go out in the back yard and do a blood sacrifice to Odin? I loved Norse mythology as a kid, but I also loved Greek, Welsh, and pretty much every other mythology I have ever read. Great stories, but don't ascribe any more meaning to them than that.

Monday, August 11, 2003

Random Reviews

Three CDs I have gotten recently, based on recommendations from my 18 yr old nephew in Maine: The Coral, The Libertines, and Interpol. Took a few listens, but I like them all. The Coral the most, I think -- kind of Zappa-esque in places. All three have a retro, 80's punk feel.

I also got the new Audioslave CD. I broke the rules and only listened to 4 tracks or so before I gave up. Not much new there at all, way to much fuzz. I sold it to one of my youngest daughter's male friends for $1.

At the library a couple of weeks ago, I picked up two recent Multiverse/Elric based novels by Michael Moorcock, "The Dreamthief's Daughter" and "The Skrayling Tree". We really liked the Elric/Corum/Multiverse stuff in college. Moorcock's writing then was very much at a comic book level, pretty sketchy. Lately, I have seen reviews of him as getting general literary notice. I guess his writing is better, but these novels throw so much stuff together, it's hard to get much out of them. When pretty much anything goes, I don't know, it's just kind of hard to respect or see any principles.

I dutifully (since in college I had ~1000 Marvel comics) saw the latest Marvel comic movie, "Daredevil". I guess it was pretty well done, but it never quite sucked you in. I thought the two X-Men movies were very good, and Spiderman was also good. Still have to see "The Hulk".

Went to the Kentucky with meine frau last night and saw "The Whale Rider". Nice story, well done, and I love Maori tattoos. The indigenous people thing is a hard one for me tho. I mean, the point of this was that they had to break their sacred traditions to let a girl become a chief -- #1 strike against indigenous cultures, their women's rights views pretty much universally suck. OK, you get past that, they are practicing stick fighting, tongue-sticking-out to frighten your enemies, and the other warrior stuff. So, what next, get in the canoes and raid Australia? I read something recently (Sci Am?) where pretty much every study they do shows that the "noble savage" stuff if a total myth. In most of these cultures, tribal warfare is a major cultural activity, with murder rates rivaling Detroit or DC. On the "living in harmony with nature" thing, it's only because they don't have the tech to dominate. I think it's generally recognized that the big mammals of North America were hunted into extinction when the 1st humans came here. I guess that these cultures have beauty that needs to be preserved, but their primitive world views are just that, primitive. Maybe they, like a lot of modern people seem to want to be, are more satisfied and happy being ignorant of 99.9% of current human knowledge. But, who has the right to sentence them to this ignorance, and the 40 year life spans that go with it? In the name of what?

I should have had my bumper stickers printed up: "Embrace Complexity".

Thursday, August 07, 2003

The Universe is Information

Read an interesting article in the latest Scientific American last night, on the universe as a hologram. Main theme, it's all about information. (Correction to an earlier blog: the Planck length is 10^-33 cm). I read Wolfram's "A New Kind of Science" a few weeks after it came out, pretty much the same thing. The base substance of universe is information, and all physical processes are computations. The universe is a Turing machine running itself -- and for lots of things, all you can do is wait and see how it comes out.

It seems odd, I started out as a physicist, then became a Servant of the Great Machines, and now they seem to be coming together. One gut-level feel I have from working in software: there is no limit to the amount of software that can be written. It's like derivative investments, but much worse. I think Bruce Sterling said, one particularly dysfunctional future we may have to look forward to is one where we all work at help desks trying to help each other figure out how to use everyone's buggy software packages.

On vacation a few weeks ago, we were watching glass blowing at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning NY. I'm watching them make a glass bowl with one furnace running at 2300 degrees, one at 2100, and an annealling furnace at 1200, and I'm basically stuck thinking, "Damn, that's sure a lot of energy for not a lot of information".

A comment on the last blog re AE and using the model of "The Cognitive Structure of Emotion". It doesn't seem to address basic "drives". Most of these are tied to the four F's (fight, flight, feed, procreate). What do you replace these with in AE?

Sunday, August 03, 2003

More AI Foo

One of the best new science fiction authors is Greg Egan. His physics and computer science are both great, and his website is way cool. I'm definitely jealous. My favorite is "Diaspora". It opens with a very believable account of the birth and development of a new artificial intelligence in a civilization of artificial intelligences.

Another brand new author who really "gets it" with directions on computing and AI is Charles Stross. His stories have been by far the best in the last three Dozois "Year's Best Science Fiction" -- the best place I have found to keep an eye out for new sf talent. Stross's 1st paper novel is due out soon.

One theme that seems to be taking firm hold in AI and cognitive science is that AI will have to be built on AE -- Artificial Emotion. I think that a lot of geeks have Star Trek's Mr. Spock as a role model. But, in Oliver Sacks' "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat", which is a great look into a number of the subagents and routines that compose the mind, there is one patient whose damage caused him to lose his emotions -- i.e., he became Mr. Spock. Problem was, he couldn't make any decisions. He could debate himself for hours on what to have for breakfast. The emotions are the raw drive that puts the mind in motion.

Another book I have read recently on this is "The Private Life of the Brain" by Susan Greenfield. Don't remember too many fun facts from this one, except the contention that mind is built on top of emotion.

I think anyone wanting to start coding in the area will want to use the model defined in "The Cognitive Structure of Emotion" by Ortony, Clore and Collins. Their model seems very workable. Some aspects are surprising -- for example, they define all emotions as polar -- if it can't have an opposite (love/hate), it ain't an emotion. So "surprise" isn't an emotion. What they have tho seems very workable. I have seen only one other model of emotions, by some Australian company, and it seemed a lot more arbitrary.